Sunday Shootaround: The Celtics aren’t dead yet, thanks to Isaiah Thomas – SB Nation

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BOSTON — After a week of lopsided results and lackluster matchups, lo and behold a genuine playoff series broke out amid the frenzied din of a game that went completely off the rails in the first few minutes and only got stranger from there. You can go around the league in a day and not find a better playoff atmosphere than the one that took over the Garden on Friday night.

That’s not hometown parochialism either. For two days the Hawks talked about what they were about to walk into in Game 3, and they were still caught back on their heels by the energy reverberating through the building. It was a mix of wide-eyed delirium and hostile intentions. It was the kind of scene that produces three flagrant fouls, a handful of eye-to-eye standoffs and one errant swinging arm.

That swing, from Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, which connected with the head of Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, appeared out of nowhere. It was so sudden, and so random, that no one caught it until moments later when Thomas was being wheeled out of a scrum by his teammate Jared Sullinger in front of a gaggle of New England Patriots while lord and master of the realm, Bill Belichick, cheered on from above.

After an anxious morning during which various Vines of the swing were replayed over and over, Thomas was ultimately saved. There would be no suspension.

In the moments following the game, the swing threatened to overshadow everything else that happened on Friday. No small feat considering the evening began with emergency starter Jonas Jerebko throwing down a volleyball spike of a dunk off a rebound and ended with Thomas scoring a career-high 42 points, putting him in such esteemed Celtic postseason company as Larry Bird, Sam Jones and John Havlicek. In between there were any number of comebacks and answers, egregious flops, dubious flagrants and a whole lot of insane shotmaking by both sides.

It was quite the turnaround from the first two games of this series that had been dominated by Atlanta’s ruthless and exacting gameplan. The Hawks quite rightly packed the paint and shadowed Thomas everywhere he went leaving the guard two imperfect options: force the action or kick it out to shooters who haven’t made shots. When he did force, he was met with resistance at the rim. When he kicked, he found shooters who couldn’t shoot.

This is nothing new. Making shots has been a team-wide issue for the Celtics all season and it became even more pronounced when their two of their best outside shooters — Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk — suffered injuries in the opener. Add to that a banged up Jae Crowder and it’s a wonder the Celtics had been able to generate any offense at all against what has been the best defensive team in the league over the last few months.

Thomas had taken a bunch of criticism from his local antagonists who contend that the first two games of the series were proof that he isn’t a true star, whatever that means. Everyone’s definition of a star player is subjective, if not entirely nebulous. Is a true star an All-Star or is that designation reserved for top-10 players? Top-20? Wherever you choose to draw the line and whatever criteria you assign, it’s worth noting that throughout the league IT’s opponents have no doubt about his status among the game’s best players.

“If you look at the playoffs in the East and if the playoffs are about having a guy to get the ball to in the fourth quarter of a close game, you start with LeBron,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said recently. “Then you probably go to (Dwyane) Wade. The next two guys you want on your team would be Isaiah Thomas and (DeMar) DeRozan. He’s that good. And he’s not guardable with any one player.”

Or as Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer put it Friday morning, “He’s a great player. He deserves and gets a lot of attention and that won’t change as long as he’s playing basketball.”

All that goes to the heart of where this Celtics team stands at the moment. Once you get past Thomas, they have a number of capable players but no real secondary option. Together they have have created an identity as a team in the best sense of the word. That’s a terrific foundation that works well in the regular season. It’s also one that Danny Ainge and company have been reluctant to trifle with too much at this point, but it doesn’t get you where you ultimately want to go and they know that.

We all knew that going into the playoffs, but the starkness of Atlanta’s Game 2 beatdown laid all those issues out in the open. No one has been spared, not even the sainted Brad Stevens, whose insistence on sticking with an ineffective starting lineup placed them in a hole the size of the old Filene’s department store in Downtown Crossing. That’s life in the postseason, where every player and each in-game move gets dissected and scrutinized in real time.

Adjustments! We must have adjustments! So, Brad got weird.

He started Evan Turner in place of Marcus Smart and Jerebko for Sullinger. The new starting lineup had played a whopping 33 possessions together during the regular season, but Stevens added with a grin, “They’re plus-20.”

The lineup change may have borne from short-handed desperation, but it worked marvelously. Jerebko’s presence afforded a bit of spacing, a lot of switching and jolt of athleticism. Turner provided another ballhandler and Stevens effectively moved Thomas to shooting guard, running him off screens instead of initiating every action. It was a bit like the way Larry Brown used to deploy Allen Iverson, which was fitting because A.I. texted I.T. before the game and told him to keep fighting. Game recognizes game.

The Hawks don’t do weird. Asked about the lineup change, which Stevens announced before the game along with an intention to move Thomas off the ball, Coach Bud demurred. The Hawks do what they do and figure out the rest later. It’s all very Spursian and it may have contributed to the Celtics opening up a 37-20 lead after one quarter.

What made this game evolve from an interesting academic exercise in tactics and strategy and turn into THIS GAME territory was that the Hawks absorbed the opening salvos and responded with their own. Forced to play in a frenzy, they unleashed Schroder, who is as close to a chaos conductor as you’ll find on this team. They tightened up defensively and started making shots, which has also been a problem for them. The Hawks trailed by as many as 20 and led by only a single point, but the outcome was in doubt right up until the moment Thomas hurled a shot-clock beating three from way beyond the arc.

“For any of you that have ever run the mile, you run the first lap, breakneck speed, and then about the third lap, it just feels like you’re never going to make the last two laps,” Stevens said. “And I thought that we were starting to wear down, obviously, after we took that 19-point lead. But then Isaiah made huge play after huge play.”

Asked about the leeway afforded Thomas, the coach responded, “He can shoot it whenever he’s open or thinks he’s open.”

Emerging from the madness resplendent in a podium-worthy suit, Thomas entered his name into the long book of Celtic legend. He couldn’t help but smile when he heard the names of the other franchise immortals who had eclipsed the 40-point postseason mark. Some players who come through here will pay lip service to the past. Others embrace it. Thomas is the latter. “The best players figure it out,” he said and no one could dispute his place on that list on this night.

I.T.’s performance did more than ensure his standing, it provided a crucial step toward validating the Celtics and their rebuilding approach thus far. Lose Game 3 and their inability to win even a single postseason game would have become a thing, a stigma that would have stayed with them until whatever comes next in Ainge’s process. Around the Garden there was relief mixed with trepidation. This game had everything and the series was now joined, but Thomas’ fate left the celebration subdued.

He was ultimately given a reprieve and the exhale was heard clear across the Charles. Game 4 is tonight at the Garden and playoff basketball is back in Boston. For real.

Sunday Shootaround: The Celtics aren’t dead yet, thanks to Isaiah Thomas – SB Nation